The suicides of seven East Valley teens in six weeks this summer has created momentum to mobilize a prevention effort that next will move to Desert Vista High School, as mental health experts say no community is immune from the heartbreaking problem.
Aimed at helping educators recognize the warning signs and reduce the risks of teen suicide, the Ahwatukee conference on Nov. 6 follows a successful kickoff earlier this month in Gilbert, where parents, teachers and mental-health advocates addressed the uncomfortable topic head-on in the wake of the deadly cluster.
Katey McPherson, executive director of the Gurian Institute, an educational consulting firm that focuses on brain development and learning, said the unusual suicide cluster included six boys and a girl ranging from 13 to 18 years old.
Six victims hanged themselves and one death was by shooting. The deaths started on July 24 and ended on Labor Day weekend.
The teens lived within 10-12 miles of each other. They did not know each other, but one boy knew another boy who killed himself in May.
The victims were described as high-achieving students with plenty of friends who might not fit the preconceived notion of a teen likely to commit suicide.
McPherson said she also knows of four teens from Tempe and surrounding communities who have committed suicide in the past five years.
“Nobody is getting to the root’’ of the suicide problem, McPherson said. “There are many prevention things we can do.’’
She said mental wellness issues need to be addressed with children – even if it’s in a very general way – when they are in elementary school, before their identity is already set in high school.
Jennifer Liewer, a spokeswoman for the Tempe Unified High School District, said a counselor at Desert Vista attended McPherson’s first mental health conference on Sept. 14 at Campo Verde High School in Gilbert, along with about 350 other parents and teachers.
The counselor came away impressed by the focus on prevention and saw value in having a similar conference in Ahwatukee, she said.
“We’ve got a lot of momentum going,’’ Liewer said. “I think we are impacting kids.’’
But mental health advocates such as McPherson and Lorie Warnock, a Mountain Pointe High School English teacher whose son committed suicide, said well-meaning gestures are not enough to stem the problem. They want to see more systemic programming aimed at preventing suicide.
McPherson said she has been monitoring teen suicides for the past year, since Warnock’s son, Mitchell, 18, a Corona del Sol High School student, killed himself. Another boy committed suicide a year earlier on the school’s grounds.
At the first conference, teen suicide – a problem traditionally cloaked in stigma and relegated to the shadows – suddenly was addressed in detail as a panel of experts described the psychological issues that motivate youngsters to take their own lives.
McPherson read off the cluster victims’ first names at the conference but mentioned no other details to protect their privacy.
The conference focus was on prevention, such as recognizing warning signs, improving communication between parents and their teens, monitoring social media closely, getting help immediately for those in crisis and removing “lethal means” of committing suicide, such as guns and belts.
“We have to get in front of this story. We don’t have any choice. We can’t afford to lose another child,” said McPherson, who organized the conference at Gilbert’s Campo Verde High School.
McPherson, a former Gilbert school administrator, noted the disturbing trend by networking with school administrators and with friends, colleagues and fellow parents on two East Valley social media sites. What she found shocked her and persuaded her to launch the conference as a call to action.
“It is my hope that this is the beginning, that we turn this tragedy into a legacy,” McPherson said.
Natalia Chimbo-Andrade, director of education and community outreach with Community Bridges, a major East Valley behavioral services provider, said she has heard that a dozen teenagers in the region killed themselves during the past year.
She said suicide statistics are sometimes hazy because of the stigma attached. A death might be classified as accidental, for instance, instead of suicide.
CDC data reported by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention ranks suicide as the eighth leading cause of death in Arizona, with 1,276 people taking their own lives in 2015.
Suicide is the leading cause of death for people 10-14 years old and the second leading cause of death for those 15-34.
An Arizona Department of Health Services report for 2015 recorded 10 suicides by children 14 or younger and 60 by those 15 to 19. The vast majority were white males.
Before the meeting, McPherson arranged a meeting of East Valley school superintendents at the school.
Glenn “Max” McGee, superintendent of the Palo Alto (Calif.) School District, briefed them on how he dealt with a suicide cluster and how to prevent such deaths.
“I am hoping that school district officials who have the power and money will work as partners with us and mobilize,” McPherson said. “We need pervasive, ongoing programming.”
Chimbo-Andrade witnessed a suicide when she was in high school and said she attempted suicide twice while suffering from depression.
She recommends confronting people – asking them if they plan to kill themselves – if warning signs are present.
Research shows that many suicidal people are ambivalent about wanting to live or die, Chimbo-Andrade said.
“You are not going to plant a seed,” she said. “Part of them wants to live and part of them wants to die. Asking them shows genuine concern. Reaching out to someone says ‘I care.’”
The Gurian Institute’s work includes study and training sessions on how the brains of boys and girls develop differently and how teachers and parents can reach them. McPherson said the female brain is fully developed at 22, the male brain at 30.
“Boys are much more likely to execute” suicide, she said. “Boys don’t tell anyone. They turn inward and not outward. Girls are much more likely to attempt but not complete suicide.”
Parents are urged to keep a close watch on their teenagers’ cellphones.
“I call it the phone check,” Chandler police Officer Kevin Quinn said. “You have to know what your kids are putting into these things. Everything is in the phone.”
Experts at the conference said warning signs can be cryptic or not exist at all.
LeAnn Hull, a businesswoman from north Phoenix, formed Andy Hull’s Sunshine Foundation after her son, a promising left-handed pitcher on the Sandra Day O’Connor High School baseball team, shot himself to death in December 2012.
On a Saturday night, “He said, ‘Mom, if you knew what is going on in my head, it would scare you,’” Hull said.
On the following Tuesday, Andy came home from school at lunchtime, watched a music video and apparently mimicked it by shooting himself with a gun, she said.
“You have to respond to the one message. I didn’t hear it,” Hull said.
Hull also spoke to the Tempe Unified High School District’s board Sept. 6 about the importance of suicide awareness and has spoken to school boards around the country.
“Had there been any education and awareness presented at our schools … I honestly believe my son would be here,” Hull said.
She said some schools have resisted addressing a sensitive topic.
“I get a lot of pushback from educators and administrators (who say) they don’t need something else to do. ... A lot of districts are not brave enough to talk about this subject.”
While that attitude may have persisted in the East Valley at one point, school officials appear to be recognizing that teen suicide is an epidemic that must be addressed.
Since 2013, the Chandler Unified School District has been training teachers to recognize the early warning signs of suicide, said Meg Gianesello, executive director of educational programs.
“Students who present suicidal ideations meet immediately with a counselor, school psychologist or social worker,” she wrote in an email. “Parents are always contacted. If the student needs immediate attention, crisis hotlines are called.”
Earlier this month, junior high and high school students viewed a suicide prevention video in recognition of National Suicide Prevention Week and were given an opportunity to speak with counselors.
Liewer, a Tempe high school district spokeswoman, said teachers are likely to receive online training to recognize the early warning signs of suicide. The district has a contact with the Tempe Services Department that provides part-time counselors at each school.
The district is working on a holistic approach to emotional support, including curriculum designed to address suicide, she said.
As of this year, all Tempe Union students’ ID cards include the phone number of teen-suicide hotline.